A Normal Book Launch: a conversation with K-Fai Steele about how there's no one path
K-Fai Steele is an author-illustrator who grew up in a house built in the 1700s with a printing press her father bought from a magician. A Normal Pig, which comes out on June 4, 2019, is her author-illustrator debut with Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Childrens. She is currently a Brown Handler Writer in Residence at the San Francisco Public Library and is the 2019 James Marshall Fellow at the University of Connecticut. K-Fai lives in San Francisco. My son and I talked with K-Fai about her book about to launch, and reflected with her about this stage of her career as a picture book author and illustrator…
Is there a personal story behind your picture book?
(Question from Auggie - age 11)
A Normal Pig is absolutely informed by my childhood experiences as a brown mixed-race kid with a non-typical name in a mostly-white rural town, and my deep desire to be normal. It’s also based on a lot of conversations I started having with friends around 2014, 2015 about what it was like to grow up and not fit into a category, or simply be very different from the community you grew up in.
When I was in grade school I used to have this feeling of anxiety on the first day of school; I knew that when my teacher got down to the S’s they would pause. Then they would probably mispronounce my name, and then usually the teacher would laugh and everyone else might laugh too. This would also happen whenever we had a substitute teacher.
My whole life I’ve gotten questions about what I am, or where I’m from, or what my name is (or a lot of the time, if my name is my “real” name). I always brushed it off (because what other choice do I have?) but all of these regular little occurrences seemed to reinforce regularly that I was an outsider in my own community; that I was not normal. So I got interested in writing about this concept of “normal-ness” and started playing with the idea for this picture book.
How do you see your character, Pip, landing in the laps of children and adults? Do you have any hope or expectations for how your story might live in the world?
I’m excited for readers to meet Pip, and I think they’ll be able to empathize with her because the idea of “normal” is so universal. I ultimately don’t want the book to be about me, K-Fai Steele, and my own childhood. When people ask me about me vis a vis this book I want to turn the mirror on them and ask them: when did you know that you weren’t normal?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but creating a story with words and pictures feels like a pretty private creative act. (Of course, you have collaborators; editors, designers, art directors and your agent.) Can you tell us what is it like to transition from the more “private” act of creating to the more “public” act of sharing your book?
You’re absolutely right. It’s subtle, but I think a lot of people who make picture books struggle with this. So this is my author/illustrator debut, and this whole thing has been a learning process. About a week ago I had a really bad day where I was like: my book is coming out really soon. Am I doing everything I’m supposed to be doing to promote this book? What am I even supposed to be doing? Am I doing it right?
I ended up doing something that’s hard for me; talking through the way I was feeling to a few people I trust, then calling the agent I work with and talking with her about it. I learned that there’s no one roadmap or formula to success for launching a picture book. But that you can anticipate some feelings, both good and bad, that you might feel. And no one really talks about the bad feelings.
I guess I had this preconceived notion that my book was launching and that it was time to be celebrating. That I should be, as social media leads you to believe, “enjoying it” and “soaking it all in.” But the reality is that before your book launches of course you’re going to be nervous. You’re going to feel like you are losing control, and you might want to hide under a table. On the day your book comes out you might anticipate that you’ll wake up and the world will be different. It will, a little bit, but maybe it won’t?
I realized that all of my feelings about this book launch are valid and it’s better for me to accept/acknowledge them than run the risk of being emotionally blindsided. So ultimately I don’t want that pre-release anxiety (or even the post-release anxiety) to go away; I just want to anticipate the feeling that I might not feel good 100% of the time, even though I get to write and draw books for a job. And that’s fine.
How does social media fit into this moment for you?
Social media definitely exacerbates this expectation that when you publish a book it will be amazing and you’ll be in a constant state of joyous book promotion. I don’t know any authors or illustrators who use social media who don’t have a complicated relationship with it. It’s this practice that, at its worst, can feel like you’re constantly “selling” something (your book, your self). I know that when I wanted to make picture books I didn’t anticipate that this would be part of the job. I know that I’m “good” at social media, and I’m also critical of what it’s doing to us as practitioners in the field.
What does the success of A Normal Pig look like to you?
Right, back to A Normal Pig! Well, once the book is out, it’s out, and like I mentioned, I don’t have any control over how people take it and make it theirs--because that’s ultimately what I want; I want people to feel like Pip belongs to them. But I do hope that the book is used to question social conventions and norms, and talk about why we classify people and behavior into binary categories. I want people (educators, families, kids) to use A Normal Pig as a way to ask questions.
How does your experience creating A Normal Pig inform your vision of what a successful career will look and feel like?
Ultimately I think this is the bigger question for anyone whos launching their first book; it’s not about if you’ve posted on social media enough about your book, or gotten enough of your friends and family to pre-order; it’s about laying the groundwork for hopefully a long career of cool projects.
I want my life to be about reading and learning and making things with people I like a lot. I would love to make more books. I realized that I really enjoy the collaboration and the editing process of working with a team of people at a publishing house, and I like sharing with/talking to kids about books and doing classroom visits. I’m very lucky that it’s working out/everything is lining up for now.
- Zoey Abbott
Zoey Abbott is an author/illustrator living in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-creator of Hello, Studio Visits. You can watch these visits and see more of Zoey’s work online at: www.zoeyabbott.com